The worst take on that cephalopod RNA editing story yet

That article I wrote up today? Take a look at the colossal botch made of it.

How octopuses, squid, and cuttlefish defy genetics’ ‘central dogma’

Jesus fuck, how can you write for a science news site and get everything that wrong? The central dogma of molecular biology (not genetics, dinglepoofs) says that the information in proteins can’t be written back into DNA. This study doesn’t even try to address the central dogma, much less “defy” it.

Now look at this paragraph. There’s a misplaced quotation mark in there, so I’m not even sure what part is actually the words of the biologist. No, not all information is stored in DNA. The RNA editing part is not new, not surprising, and isn’t going to surprise any knowledgable biologist (the degree that some cephalopods exploit RNA is unusual, but it’s not in itself revolutionary), and most definitely does not invalidate Crick’s central dogma.

In fact, RNA editing is so rare that it’s not considered part of genetics’ “Central Dogma.” “Ever since Watson and Crick figured out that genetic information is stored in DNA, we’ve had this view that all the information is stored in DNA, and it’s faithfully copied to another molecule when it’s used—that’s RNA, and from there, it’s translated into the proteins that do all the work. “And it’s generally assumed that that’s a pretty faithful process,” explains study co-author Joshua Rosenthal, a cephalopod neurobiologist at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, MA. “What the squid RNA is showing is that that’s not always the case—that, in fact, organisms have developed a potent means to manipulate information in RNA.”

I’m not even going to begin on all the news stories crediting cephalopod intelligence to this process.


  1. Jessie Harban says

    The central dogma of molecular biology (not genetics, dinglepoofs) says that the information in proteins can’t be written back into DNA.

    An idea well confirmed through research isn’t a “dogma.”

  2. says

    Don’t just reprint university press releases?

    How’s your relationship with your university press office? Hopefully good, they’d probably be delighted for a scientist to take an interest …

  3. wzrd1 says

    The closest that could take this out of “not even wrong” land would be to discuss DNA repair proteins, which still don’t do what the article claims is being done.
    But, at least that would take it out of central not even wrong land and a kilometer or two inside of its border.
    With Valles Marineris between it and the border.

  4. says

    “how can you write for a science news site and get everything that wrong?”

    Sadly, it seems like has long since gone down the tube and will spin just about everything to get those juicy clicks.

  5. Holms says

    New rule: anyone wanting to become a science journalist must demonstrate knowledge in the relevant discipline(s) by passing an examination of the basic concepts of that descipline.

  6. chrislawson says

    Yep, has definitely disappeared down its own fundament. It’s a shame. It used to be a great source of science news. (I’m being a bit unfair here — it still has good reporters writing up interesting news, but it appears to have lost the editorial capacity to cut out the crappy reports.)

  7. KG says

    Jesus fuck, how can you write for a science news site and get everything that wrong?

    Apparently, makes a point of not disciminating in its hiring practices – at least, not on the grounds of scientific literacy.

  8. David Marjanović says

    Science journalists are routinely expected to write about either all of science or at least large subfields of it. As a result, they very often don’t understand what they’re writing about.

  9. says

    Actually, claims that the text was provided by “Cell Press” (“Cell” is the journal the paper appeared in). So it appears that this isn’t borking it, but the publicists at “Cell” (which is even worse, to my mind).

  10. chrislawson says

    ahcuah, mindlessly repeating press releases is bad journalism even if the press release is from a usually reliable source.

    What seems to have happened here is that the Cell Press PR people talked to one of the co-authors — but unfortunately they chose the ninth of ten listed authors, and it appears to me that said author was either speaking outside his area of expertise or (less likely given the quote provided) was misquoted by the PR interviewer who asked for an explanation of RNA editing and thought that this was the crucial part of the paper.

    It’s a pity, because the discovery of RNA editing is a pretty damn interesting story in its own right. But RNA editing has been known since the late 1980s, so the concept is 30 years old — this paper is important but not for the reasons in the piece.

    (Short version of the discovery of RNA editing — researchers noticed something really weird about trypanosomes: they somehow made functional proteins out of badly broken genes. This made no sense as it should have been impossible for the trypanosomes to turn these sequences into working proteins. It turns out that the trypanosomes were taking the broken genes, turning them into broken RNA sequences, then editing the RNA into sequences that could be translated into functional protein. Amazing.)

  11. chrislawson says

    Another quote I didn’t like from the piece: “”They’re the only taxon out there that approaches vertebrates in terms of behavioral complexity,” says Rosenthal.”

    Leaving aside the use of “taxon” in an odd way, I would also say the eusocial insects show quite extraordinary behavioural complexity, and we’re starting to see more and more research on complex behaviour in plants.

  12. says

    @chrislawson. As far as I can tell, doesn’t do journalism in any of its items. It’s just a repackager/consolidator of various science-related press releases.

  13. mykroft says

    If you hated that article PZ, you’ll probably also hate this one. Some Biology professors are suggesting that instincts were once learned behaviors, which became traits encoded in our DNA via epigenetics.

  14. rietpluim says

    I object to the slightest suggestion that there might be a possibility that some field of science may have something that shows resemblance with something that in some circumstances may be compared to: dogma.

    Not even as a figure of speech.

  15. wzrd1 says

    @rietpluim #15, do you mean like the fact that ulcers are caused by stress, bad diet and excess acid?
    Even after the discovery of H. Pylori? It only took the discoverer to drink a culture, resulting in an infection with the bacteria and resultant ulcers, which he then successfully treated with antibiotics to change that dogmatic belief.
    Or physics and aether…
    Or the resistance to quantum theory.